History Turns to Story in Ireland

Celtic crosses in Monasterboice cemetery
Celtic crosses in Monasterboice cemetery

Storytelling and folklore, Guinness and whiskey. It seems these features blend well together in Ireland, for the most part creating a rich and fascinating culture.

Northern Ireland

It’s interesting to see how history and fiction blend together. James and I spent most of a long weekend in early February in Dublin, but we took two memorable daytrips from there as well. The first was to Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom and at one time in heated conflict with the Irish Republic. We crossed the rope bridge Carrick-a-Rede as the wind tossed it and us along, climbed parts of the volcanic rock structure Giant’s Causeway, stopped to see Dunluce Castle which Belfast-born author C.S. Lewis used as inspiration for the Narnian castle Cair Paravel, and visited the architecturally mixed city of Belfast. Giant’s Causeway is so named because, according to many colorful variations of legend, the Irish giant Finn MacCool built it during a conflict with a Scottish giant.

Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge
Along the way to the bridge
Along the way to the bridge
Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway
Giant's Causeway from the top
Giant’s Causeway from the top
Dunluce Castle
Dunluce Castle
Belfast
Belfast
St. Anne's Cathedral in Belfast
St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast

Celtic History

Our second tour further emphasized how hard it is to understand just how ancient the remains of Ireland’s history are. Here we explored Ireland’s Celtic history and literally stepped into the ancient past.

Our guide was one of the 10% of the Irish who consider themselves fluent in Irish Gaelic. In fact, English is his second language, although like the majority of Irish people, he is also fluent in English. Irish Gaelic is taught in schools and, as English and Irish are both official languages, all signs in Ireland are written in both languages. (In Northern Ireland, a noticeable difference is that only English is used.)

On this trip we visited two Celtic burial grounds: the Hill of Tara and Loughcrew. There are few burial mounds remaining today, as the stones from the mounds have been used over the course of history for other buildings. Incredibly, we were able to enter a 5,000 year old tomb in Loughcrew. Celtic writing carved in the walls and passage ceilings, coins and dried up figs placed between the stones could still be seen inside.

Hill of Tara
Hill of Tara
Trim Castle
Trim Castle
Loughcrew Celtic burial grounds
Loughcrew Celtic burial grounds
Celtic writing inside the tomb
Celtic writing inside the tomb
Irish coutryside view from Loughcrew
Irish coutryside view from Loughcrew site

Dublin

Back in the present, modern-day Dublin is exactly what you would expect it to be like. Home of many famous writers – James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, etc. – the city is still full of friendly, loquacious people who take any question as the opportunity to tell a story. And, of course, Dublin has no shortage of cozy pubs.

Guinness ad in Dublin
Guinness ad in Dublin
O'Neill's pub
O’Neill’s pub
Inside O'Neill's
Inside O’Neill’s
Pub in Temple Bar district
Pub in Temple Bar district
Jameson's Irish Whiskey Distillery
Jameson’s Irish Whiskey Distillery
Glasnevin Cemetery
Glasnevin Cemetery

The highlight of Dublin this time for me though wasn’t the haunted history tours, the literary pub crawl, the Guinness storehouse, or the Jameson Distillery tour. It was the Book of the Kells and the Old Library at Trinity College. Like something out of a medieval mystery story, the Book of Kells is a biblical text handwritten and illustrated in an island monastery, stolen and lost or hidden away during its history. It eventually came to land in Trinity College where different sample pages of it and a few other medieval texts are on display daily.

The Old Library above the Book of Kells exhibit is the quintessential library: full of high rounded windows to light its dark wood interior, narrow wooden ladders to reach musty hardcover books in every section, a spindly spiral staircase leading up to the upper level, and quiet rustling. Crowds of tourists browsing open copies of historic books in display cases in near silence. We even came across a folktale of the Lorelei, a mythical character for which a rock on the Rhein near Sankt Goar, Germany was named. Once more example of folklore and history, past and present colliding harmoniously.

Old Library at Trinity College
Old Library at Trinity College

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Soundtrack of Salzburg

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Alps as seen from the hotel room

It’s only fitting that I would remember my experience in Salzburg through its sounds, as even the silence that greeted me when we arrived on the first frosty morning there was striking. I was surprised at how empty and how small the historic city center was, known as the birthplace of Mozart and the residence of the Von Trapp family (now of “Sound of Music” fame). But by late January the high point of the tourist season had passed and we were able to get well acquainted with the layout of the city surrounded by beautiful snow-covered Alps in peace. Shortly after we arrived, small but hefty metal church bells tolled ten o’clock and a guy running a coffee stand next to an empty ice skating rink shouted “Guten Morgen, Salzburg!” into the chilly air, as if to greet the town itself.

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Salburger Dom
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Inside the Dom

Bells pealed from every small church throughout the day every quarter hour, and for most of the morning this set the backdrop for our visit. Bells, the occasional clip-clop of horse hoofs on cobblestones pulling tourist carriages, and silence. Silence as we passed the old and new Residenz, the Dom (cathedral), St. Peter’s Church and its adjacent cemetery. This last was fascinating, as it lay between the pencil-like tower of the church and a sheer face of rock into which monastic homes had been built high into the cliff. The graves are rented by families, and we saw many newer graves alongside older ones. Most are carefully tended like a garden (some were being attended to by family members during our visit), with arrangements of perennial pink heather, fresh roses, pine branches, and even occasional small Christmas trees decorated with ornaments or candles.

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St. Peter’s Cemetery

As we walked through, light sounds of construction on a wooden roof behind and above the graves on the mountain gave way to the Cranberries’ “Zombie” playing softly on the workers’ radio. The Irish war-themed 90s single lent a surreal feeling to the cemetery visit.

But the mood picked up after lunch as we emerged from a quiet wooden tavern to the surprising sounds of Karneval beginning already in Salzburg. The owner of the guest house where we stayed told us that Karneval celebrations aren’t so typical in Austria – the traditions come more from Switzerland – and that the troupes performing concerts throughout the days and parades at night that weekend only do this every few years in Salzburg.

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Getreidegasse – main street for shops
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Skeleton band for Karneval

So we toured the Salzburg History Museum and the town squares to one marching band pop song (mostly American music) after another. Linkin Park’s “Castle of Glass” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” in particular were played over and over by different elaborately costumed bands of teenagers.

But Karneval garb is quite different in Salzburg than it is in Mainz. Whereas Mainz paraders are all fools and cute animals, the Salzburg bands had scarier or at least more bizarre themes. Witches, skeletons, trolls, monsters, zombies, elves, magicians… Most wore either huge elaborate masks or detailed airbrushed make-up.

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Karneval parade at night

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The concerts continued the entire day both Friday and Saturday. One song blended into another as we and the bands moved alternately through the city. In the evening the celebration culminated with a parade (only an hour long) to showcase all of the groups as they crossed the bridge over the Salzach River into Salzburg’s center. Some of the scarier masked characters got in spectators’ faces (mostly for women and children), messed with their hair, or (in my case) stole their hats and kept parading away.

By this time, of course, my heartbeat had been realigned to the beat of a giant bass drum. And the music continued after the parade was over. Groups continued to draw small audiences in various squares on both sides of the river for hours after the official celebrations had ended (and before they began their next full day celebrations).

We spent our next and last day in Salzburg at Mozart’s former home where he was in fact born. Depending on where we were in our rounds of the home-turned-museum, we alternated between more marching band pop and rock music and Mozart’s classic works. I’m not sure what Mozart would think of the modern sounds of Salzburg, but they certainly created a memorable experience for me.

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Mozart’s home
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Mozart Kugeln chocolates